March 28, 2010

LAST CONTACT by Guy Stewart

Be Nho Elf let the car float to a stop and settle, then popped the door, swinging her short legs out into the muggy Minnesota heat. The smell of damp, rich soil with a tang of liquid ammonia was badly mixed with the odor of decaying flesh.

A youngster in sheriff brown stepped up to her, saluted and said, “Corporal Stager, ma’am. I’m to take you directly to sheriff Baen…”

Be Nho lifted her chin at the woman in jeans and T-shirt behind “Corporal Stager Ma’am” and stepped around him as she said, “Tykaetrice. How’s life been treating you?”

The detective sniffed and shook her head, “I was on vacation at the lake. Then I got called here,” she paused. “Life stinks.”

Be Nho lifted an eyebrow and said, “So does death – in this case strongly.”

Tykaetrice puffed a grim laugh then jerked her head toward the center of the square of CRIME SCENE DO NOT CROSS tape. “Looks pretty ugly, too.”

“Death never looks pretty,” Be Nho said as she ducked under the tape.

“Even I’ve seen it looking better than this,” she said, stepping to one side and sweeping low with her right arm as if introducing a dance partner.

Be Nho scowled. “Flipped?”

“Pretty obviously, I’d say.”

Be Nho stepped up to the corpse, flexing her toes and being careful not to touch the road surface with anything but her feet, she squatted. Shoes prevented the CHEAPALIN surface from digesting her, shocking her or trying to engulf her, but her pants weren’t treated and the road organism was a voracious animal.

“They have CHEAPALIN here long?”

“This was the first county 3M seeded. They did a large-scale test here twenty years ago.”

“So the neighborhood knows what the road does, eh?” She pulled a probe from her shoulder bag and began to methodically poke the corpse. On its back, the face was mostly gone showing bone, desiccated muscle, teeth and tufts of hair on top. The front of a T-shirt and the thighs of stained blue denims and the skin and muscles underneath them had been digested as well. The shoes were untouched. The way it rested on the road made it look as if it had sunk half way into the pebbly, matte black surface. “Male. Hundred and forty kilos. Late fifties, early sixties. Excessive adipose deposits. Poor muscle definition, though,” she touched the hand. Only half of it had been digested. “There’s good evidence of previous calluses, so he did manual labor at one time.”

Behind her, Tykaetrice said, “Why not just read the road? You still got the hands – that’s why I asked for you.” Be Nho shot her a look. Tykaetrice raised both hands in surrender and said, “Thought I’d save us some time.” She cleared her throat and continued, “Farmer. Nicholas Maynard. Lived over there.” Be Nho stood up, shading her eyes against the bright afternoon sun. “About two klicks.” A white farmhouse, picturesque and quaint, rose out of emerald green corn fields. A cow-like animal with bladed hoofs, its dung and urine rich in corn nutrients but deadly to weeds and a penchant for using a frog-like tongue to nab insect pests stepped out from between two rows of corn, turned left and started down the next road. Beyond the cowbine, oaks or poplar arched over the farmhouse with its red barn, completing a Currier & Ives image of pastoral tranquility.

Except for the corpse in the middle of the road. “He’s a bit away from home, isn’t he,” Be Nho said. “Did you have junior over there treat the body?”

Tykaetrice signaled “Corporal Stager Ma’am” who came over and sprayed the corpse with an old-fashioned pump sprayer. The solution would send the road organism – a bioengineered DNA patchwork of cellulose, heme, eel, ameba, peat moss, alfalfa, leukocytes, iron and a mix of Notothenioidei and Noctilucan cells, more commonly known by its acronym CHEAPALIN – around the body into hibernation. The entire network of asphalt roads in North America had been converted into sets of living organisms. Electric eel cells created current passing through hair-fine iron filaments in the road. A thick black pad of organic road organism attached to the underside of any car that had had a bioconversion charged a set of ultralight batteries. A magnetic field generated as cars moved over the filaments got read by a microchip implanted in the car’s pad and matched the road’s magnetic field allowing for a maglev effect. A variety of chlorophyll in the road itself and the skin of a car converted sunlight to energy and alfalfa genes allowed roots growing under the road organism to return nitrogen to the soil as well as pull up micronutrients. A semi-transparent, thick cellulose skin protected the whole thing while remaining flexible. A few Notothenioidei genes kept cellular fluids from freezing during Minnesota winters. Noctilucan genes made it glow at night when disturbed. Leukocytes digested roadkill, leaves, branches and old pizza boxes.

And murder victims. Hence the partially digested corpse bothering her day. She said, “You have suspects corralled?”

“The obvious ones,” she said, making a face. “If this is as easy as it seems, we should both be home before sundown and sipping drinks a half-an-hour later.”

Be Nho said, “I have my great-grandson’s birthday party to go to tonight. I’d like to have time to clean up. No one in my family appreciates eau de corpse.”

“Get in. You can leave your car here,” Tykaetrice said, striding with long, lanky legs to her black-and-white. Be Nho climbed in. The car bounced a bit as the lev compensated. Tykaetrice started her rundown immediately as the air conditioner blasted them with arctic-dry air, heat and moisture sucked into an aluminum compression canister, dried then expanded suddenly. “Four suspects.”

Be Nho sucked air.

“I know. Not good. But they all have strong motives – and currently reasonable alibis.”

“This wasn’t your average nice farmer?”

Tykaetrice snorted. “Daughter, Nina, sixteen-years-old is number one suspect: lives at home and pretty much is a full-time servant – and whipping girl.”

“She doesn’t go to school?”

“Nope. 3M made this county a ‘FutureWorld’ showcase. Schools were bulldozed same time’s the asphalt was seeded with road spores. Kids here are online four days a week, forty-eight weeks of the year and offline for a four-week maintenance break and data update every summer. They move at their own speed with a Director who designs query markers that lets exuberant adolescent brain tissue make effective memory pathways. The one on this strip is Ms. Dahlstrom – she has a knack for setting up query markers for her students that lead to tested, superior memory pathways. Kids love her; so do the parents.” She grunted, “I even like the woman. She plays a mean hand of poker, can drink half the men in town under the table and rides a classic cycle. The neighborhood bully took a shine to her a couple months after she came to town. He turned up in the intensive care unit up in the Twin Cities with multiple fractures, crushed larynx, subdural hematoma and a kink in his…um…member that left it,” she paused, “paralyzed.”

Be Nho’s eyes grew wide. After a moment she said, “Try to recruit her into the force?”

“She wasn’t interested, likes working with kids.” She paused again, “Gives martial arts lessons Tuesday nights, though. Very popular.”

They rode in silence until Be Nho said, “The other suspects?”

“Besides Nina – by the way, she reported being abused once.” Be Nho frowned. Tykaetrice nodded. “Just once. To the teacher. Local police investigated, but the rest of the family stonewalled. Second suspect is Seinfeld Larson, Nina’s new boyfriend.”

“She has lots?”

“Nope. This is the first one. She’s quiet. Smart. Planned on leaving for college as soon as her pathways were up to college data loads. Boyfriend’s the same way. Farm boy with a good head on his shoulders, works a second job at a garage in town.”

“The other two?”

“Nicholas’s wife, Ashley Maynard demonstrates all the signs of domestic violence: Nicholas reportedly insults her in public, keeps her from going to church and from seeing the few friends she has. He was in total control of their money, told her what to wear and acted jealous and possessive all the time. While we’ve never picked him up for it, his brother and Nina say he uses and has a wicked temper. He’s threatened to shoot her and has hit, kicked, shoved, slapped, choked her and Nina. I don’t have any evidence but hearsay, but he supposedly forces her to engage in kinky sex acts against her will. I’ve heard him blame his bad mood on her plenty of times.”

“Ashley from around here?”

“Nope. Came from Alaska. She was a nursing student but got pregnant while he was up in the Cities on military leave.”

“Which one?”

“India-Pakistan Police Action.”

“Ew. Nasty that,” she paused. “Lucky he could make a kid.”

Tykaetrice grunted as they turned up the gravel driveway and added, “He was the only one who got lucky that night.” The car settled wheels to the ground and rolled roughly forward, impelled by the electric motor that hummed to life. “Looks like his luck ran out and everybody else’s just took a turn for the better.” She sighed and concluded, “Last suspect is the vic’s brother, Brandon – no formal accusation but frequently complains at one of the town watering holes that his brother cheated him out of a couple grand when they were young.”

“Any of them feel strongly enough to murder the vic?”

Tykaetrice grunted as she rode the brake to a slow stop in the gravel turnaround next to the farmhouse. “I wouldn’t have thought so, but then, that was before a neighbor found Nicholas’s body lying on the shoulder of County Road 15.” She opened the door, letting a wave of hot, damp air roll into the car.

Be Nho got out as well and followed the sheriff, who opened the door and waited as she climbed a neat set of wooden steps to a shaded veranda that wrapped around the front of the house. “They’re all here. Except for Brandon. He’s under surveillance at his apartment in town.”

Be Nho said, “He doesn’t have a farm of his own?”

“Nope. Nicholas was oldest and got this place after the parents died. Used to grow pharm crops then sold out to a corporation that took everything except the house. He was supposed to enjoy a life of luxury, but he blew it on half-baked Get Richer schemes and pyramid plans. Little brother Brandon had to make do with working at the grain elevator in town in the on-season.”

“And in the off-season?”

Tykaetrice shrugged, “How do you think I know about him being cheated by Nicholas?”

They entered the house. The still air in the mudroom was stifling. Tykaetrice called out, “Sheriff Baen here!” She led the way through narrow hallways into the family living room. The windows were all open and four fans spun at high speed, moving the air, but not cooling it. Furnished in Mission Revival, the chairs, table and couch were surprisingly high quality. Two teens sat side-by-side, one boy, and one girl. The girl Nina’s – leg was draped over boyfriend Seinfeld’s – knee. They held both of each other’s hands. Hers were pale with slender fingers, his bluntly square, and etched with dark stains. Clearly, he worked in heavy loamy soil or with oil – both likely being a farmer’s son.

An older woman – most likely late fifties or early sixties – sat stiffly upright in a rocking chair, wearing heavy denim jeans, a gray plaid shirt with sleeves rolled up, staring out the window, not paying attention to anyone. A deputy stood to one side, stuffed for all Be Nho could tell. Tykaetrice made introductions all around.

She sat down and opened her netpad. Tykaetrice’s investigation notes came up and she skimmed the data, bit her lower lip and said, “I’m investigator Be Nho Elf…”

Be Nho got nothing from the teens while they were in a group in the house. They stared at her and answered in monotone voices when Mrs. Maynard forced them to answer with a scowl or a weary, “Now, kids…” The woman herself was no more forthcoming.

Be Nho walked through the house, looking at everything, but the forensics team had been through it all already, taken the photos, sniffed the corners and luminoled everything in sight. There was nothing. “Nothing except a dead man in the road,” she muttered. Once she got back downstairs, she released Tykaetrice from the scene and followed her outside to the tan, yellow and electric blue.

“You sure you’re gonna be all right here?” the sheriff asked.

Be Nho sniffed and said, “The killer’s not here. The crime was one of passion and no one here...”

Tykaetrice said, “Did I mention that one of the deputies interviewed Ms. Dahlstrom?”

“Did you discover anything of significance?”

Tykaetrice nodded and got into the car. The electric motor hummed to life and rolled forward a meter. Irritated, Be Nho strode alongside the car and rapped on the window. The car stopped and the window came down. Tykaetrice smirked and said, “Yes?”

“What did the deputy discover?”

“Nina talked to her teacher.”


She made a face, “Sorry, I grew up in the wrong era. The query path director, Ms. Dahlstrom knows about Nicholas abusing Nina and her mother.”


Tykaetrice shrugged and said, “She’s a teacher – no matter what we call ‘em these days – and she cares enough about kids to turn down the opportunity to work in law enforcement despite her obvious qualifications.” She paused then added, “Maybe she figured she was doing community service after she beat up the bully?”

“Why would anyone do that?” Be Nho said. She caught Tykaetrice’s eye and they smirked together. “I’ll see you later.” The sheriff closed her window and drove off, raising a cloud of dust that hung in the stifling air. The sun had touched the horizon and long shadows lay over the farm. Be Nho took a walk around the barn, keeping to the shadows. Keeping an eye on the house – and on the strange looking cowbines that gashed out from between nearby cornrows every few minutes and looked at her curiously, she waited until Nina and Seinfeld came outside and headed down the drive to the main road. They walked as one until they made it to the end and they both stopped.

Seinfeld stepped out on to the living road and jumped up and down, shouting as if he was celebrating. Where the road fell into shadow, it glowed ghostly green. He tried to drag Nina after him but she resisted, pulling free of him. He laughed, lunged at her and grabbed her hand again to force her onto the road.

This time, she jerked away and ran up the drive a bit, turning to face him a moment later; not before Be Nho had seen that she was weeping. Seinfeld skipped down the drive and reached for her again. This time they were close enough for Be Nho to hear Nina say, “I don’t ever want to touch that thing again! I don’t want to walk on it! I don’t want to look at it! It killed Dad!”

Seinfeld said, “It didn’t kill your dad, it just ate him after he was dead!”

“How do you know that?”

His eyes widened and he stopped advancing, stammered then said, “It was, like obvious, wasn’t it? He was digested on both sides.”

“How do you know he was digested on his back?”

He reached for her again. This time, Nina grabbed his arm and yanked him forward, stuck out her leg and knocked his feet out from under him in a clean judo move that slammed him to the ground.

He surged to his feet, fists at his side and charged her. She stared at him for an instant, then covered her face and hunched over, miserable, clearly weeping. Even though she couldn’t see his face, Be Nho watched the anger drain from Seinfeld. His fists flattened into palms and he opened his arms, stepping forward to embrace Nina. Her arms slipped around him and she wept until her face came up. He kissed her cheek and she turned away at first, but only briefly.

Be Nho turned away. The teens were now too busy making out to notice her slip through a cornrow and head for the road following the weed-free, loose soil between the rows. She hoped she wouldn’t run into one of the cowbines. She made it past the kids without disturbing them. She was pretty sure neither of them had killed Nicholas – certainly not the girl. Seinfeld on the other hand – he knew something. She’d have to get him alone later. Nina had obviously been afraid to walk out on to the living road. Both of them wore impervious shoes – the same ones everyone else wore these days; lavender with some personalized pattern on it. Federal law mandated the apparel any time someone was outside of a building because the roads were dangerous to the uninitiated. “Which doesn’t include anyone in this town,” she said as she stepped out of the field and onto the road. She stopped and squatted down, staring at it. She would have sworn the thing pulsed, but knew that was ridiculous – the roads had no real circulatory system, absorbing what trace nutrients they needed from the ground through their roots. Water passed through the semipermeable membrane. Chlorophyll of various colors provided energy. Iron crystallized out of solution into micro fibers through which electric current generated by modified electric eel cells passed creating the magnetic field used to drive cars. White blood cell DNA allowed for the road to engulf and absorb any organic substance laying on the surface.

Despite growing up with it, Nina was afraid of it and Seinfeld exhibited typical adolescent male bravado when facing poorly understood situations. Like girlfriends crying and fathers-of-the-girlfriend dying.

Be Nho could talk to the road. She reached out to place one hand on the surface and closed her eyes. The cell walls of the road organism touched the tegument of her hand and accepted the neural connection without trouble, recognizing her hand as part of itself. She closed her eyes and tasted the environment, sensed pressure, felt faint electrical pulses that snapped beneath the tough surface.

After a moment, she withdrew her hand. There was nothing unusual in the sensations from the area this close to the Maynard farm. She pursed her lips and stood up looking down the road toward the spot Nicholas Maynard’s body had been discovered a kilometer away, and started walking. The surface was resilient which made CHEAPALIN roads extremely popular among the marathon set, the tennis set, the road construction crew set and the just-learning-to-ride-a-bike set. It made her own walk seem shorter.

When she stopped where she’d parked on the side of the road, she squatted next to the car. Sunlight was fading as she studied the surface. Tykaetrice had had the body removed and there wasn’t really anything to indicate that it had been there a few hours ago. If there had been blood, entrails or anything else organic, it had been absorbed already. That was one of the biggest plusses of the living road – weed seeds were digested long before they had a chance to sprout. Roadkill was a thing of the past – which the murderer in this case had tried to use to his or her advantage – though they sadly miscalculated the difference in the time it would take the road to digest a squashed squirrel and the time it would take to digest an uncompressed human corpse.

Be Nho looked around. It was quiet except for the sunset chorus of meadowlark, redwing blackbirds, robins, house, field and swamp sparrows. Lowing cattle, the buzz of an airplane passing overhead, a distant, loud bang of something metal impacting something else metal, whistle of a red-tailed hawk hunting overhead, soughing of a breeze through thigh-high roadside ditch weeds.

In the distance, she heard an old-fashioned automobile engine roar.

She stood up, frowning. She hadn’t heard the sounds of an internal combustion engine for a long time. Stepping into the middle of the road, she looked both ways, but saw nothing and retreated to the side, hoping her car was far enough over. The sound grew as the roar held steady. Crescendoing, it dropped abruptly off, the throbbing rush slowing then stopping abruptly to be replaced by a more typical hum of a maglev vehicle.

The hum grew louder followed by the faint squeal of brakes until a rusted, dark green pickup truck came to a stop next to her car. The window was down already and a man with wisps of gray hair, lined face, a large red nose, and a gap in the gap-toothed smile, slid across the seat, hung one elbow out the window and asked, “Everything OK, Lady?”

Be Noh smiled, nodded and said, “I just pulled over to enjoy spring.” She stepped on to the road, closer to the pick up. “I’m from the Cities, heading south to Rochester and I decided to take back roads.” She shook her head sadly, “It’s so noisy up there, I just wanted to get a taste of country living, so I pulled over and I’ve been watching the sunset and listening to the sounds.”

He nodded slowly, smiling faintly. “Know what you mean, though I ain’t been to the Cities in years. Born and bred a country boy.” He nodded, adding, “Have a nice night. Should be perfectly safe out here in the country – ‘ceptin’ for maybe a coyote or two and fast drivers. But stay close to your car and neither one won’t bother you. ‘night.”

“‘night, Mister,” she said, waving.

The truck hummed away, heading toward the farm. Be Nho raised an eyebrow as it drove past the driveway. She was amused that Brandon Maynard was pretending he was just some farmer out for an evening drive and had nothing to do with the Maynard place – or the murder of his brother. Be Nho had recognized him immediately from the netpad profile. She shook her head. The truck didn’t have the black pad under layer of a bioconversion car. It would have to rely on a more expensive electronic conversion, instead. She said to the cooling evening air, “Brandon Maynard, what are you doing out wandering around in your ICE pickup truck?”

She typed an alert, sent it to Tykaetrice, slid her netpad back into her bag and squatted again. She leaned forward and put both hands down on the road. She didn’t usually opt for the sensory overload using both hands would bring, but she had narrowed the suspect list to two, possibly three. The road merged into her hand tegument completely. She closed her eyes and allowed the entire suite of sensations to slide over her as a circle of bioluminescence spread around her hands until it was over a meter across and flickered like a miniature lightning storm.

The next morning, Be Nho was sitting in a small diner of a motel at the edge of town, finishing a bowl of oatmeal, brown sugar and real maple syrup when her netpad sang. She washed her hands with a dash of water from her glass and touched the screen. Tykaetrice’s image jumped up in three dimensions and said, “I take it you got some information from your palm reading?”

“Don’t call it that. It makes it sound occult,” Be Nho said. “It’s simple science.”

Tykaetrice waved the comment away as she always did. “So what does my danh từ friend have to say?”

Be Nho rolled her eyes. “I’m no fortune teller, but the information I got from the road tells me a couple things: first and most important was that he was killed in the middle and rolled to the side. The memory trail of organics was clear and when I felt for the digestion trail, it was also pretty clear from the flavor that he’d been drinking.”

Tykaetrice nodded. “Corroborates the wife’s story. She said he was drinking pretty heavy that night and left after it got dark. Say’s that’s pretty normal, too. Hitches a ride with one of his drinking buddies and heads to some bar somewhere.”

“Any of those ‘buddies’ coming forward to let us know they saw him?”

“No one’s claimed last contact, if that’s what you’re asking. We don’t know exact time of death yet…” she paused, waiting for Be Nho to fill her in.

Be Nho shrugged this time, “I can tell what the road ate and where the stuff landed, but it doesn’t give me an exact printout of times. I know it was cool by the rate of acid action. I know it was dark by the energy signature. Sorry. It’s as much a creature witness as Nina, Seinfeld, Ms. Dahlstrom, Ashley and Brandon and my guess is that most of them couldn’t tell me when they last had contact with Nicholas, either.”

“You think Dahlstrom’s a suspect?”

“Definitely. If anyone is capable of killing a drunken old farmer – who maybe decided to do some off-site plowing, if you know what I mean,” Tykaetrice rolled her holographic eyes skyward and they both laughed, “ – it’s the query path director. Especially if she was privy to the knowledge that he’d been abusing his daughter. Maybe the old man’s pass at her gave her an excuse to take out the garbage.”

Tykaetrice shook her head and sighed in exasperation, “Just what I need – a vigilante on the loose.” She sighed and looked to one side, obviously making a note on her desktop, “I’ll look into it. You get anything else from the palm reading?”

Be Nho bit her lower lip then said, “Some odd organic traces showed up.”

The sheriff was suddenly alert. “How odd?”

“Not sure. It’s clearly an ethanol trace, but nothing like the alcohol Nicholas Maynard had been drinking. His booze had a clearly identifiable makeup. This was different and unusual. I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen it in a very long time.”

“Where exactly was it?”

“First of all, you should know the road only digested a small amount. Probably just a touch on the edge of the membrane. It seems likely that most of the ethanol hit the real ground alongside the road and that only a small amount splashed on to the road’s surface to be digested.”

“Why is it unusual?”

“Except for a few trace elements, it’s identical to what Nicholas was drinking.”

“And that’s unusual…why?”

Be Nho paused, scowling hard. “A splash pattern would be what you’d expect if someone was putting fuel into an internal combustion engine…”

“So? There maybe hundreds of them out here and about twenty-five percent of the roads are still gravel so you can’t use maglev vehicles on them, they’d have to travel on wheels by battery. In the long run, it’s pretty expensive so most farmers have a biofuel vehicle or two.”

“I know – I looked into it last night.”

“So what’s the problem?”

She paused for some time before she said, “After the corn scandals of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, virtually all biofuels today are what are called cellulosic ethanols – they’re made from grass clippings, leaves, cornstalks and other waste plant parts.”

“Yeah, so?”

“What splashed on the road wasn’t cellulosic ethanol. It was plain, old-fashioned ethanol. Like they used in the twenty-oughts.” She paused for a long time before she said, “And it was mixed with small amounts of petroleum distillates.” She tapped the screen to send the data.

Tykaetrice blinked in surprise, pursed her lips and said, “We’re on it.” She turned and the image flickered then came back. She said, “I almost forgot to tell you, coroner finished the autopsy.” She paused significantly.

Be Nho recognized the bait and trap and obligingly asked, “Something you think is significant showed up.”


Be Nho nodded. The Guessing Game. They played it when they either had no idea or had time to spare. “Feet,” she guessed.


Drat, she said silently. Out loud, “Hands then.” She pursed her lips again, took a breath and said, “Unusual damage.”

A quick nod. “Localized, one hand.”

Be Nho ran through possibilities, “The hand wasn’t obviously crushed – we’d have noticed that right away. So it has to be relatively minor damage.” She stopped talking, gently biting the inside of her cheek, then gripping her lips with her right thumb and forefinger. Finally, she said, “Fingertips. At what cardinal point was the head when you recovered the body?”

Tykaetrice paused, glanced to one side then turned all the way. When she came back she said, “I don’t mean anything suggestive or humorous by this, but the head was oriented north by northwest.” Be Nho split her screen and called up the scene images, scrolled through them, found what she wanted and zoomed in.

She stood up, saying, “I’m on this end of it. Call me later.”

“Wait! What do you think you’ve got?” Tykaetrice exclaimed.

“How about I’ll call you? I’ve got a lead to follow.” Be Nho hung up, paid her check and left the diner. She said, “The tips of the ring, middle and index fingers were flattened. As if they were run over by a tire.” A low-pitched roar sounded at the far end of town then stopped abruptly. Brandon Maynard’s dark green pickup truck floated down the street then turned out of town. Be Nho pulled out her netpad again and fingered it. It blipped a query. She put it away and swinging her bag around to her back, strode out to the car. The morning air was still cool and damp and she drew it in, tasting the Great Plains, then got in and rolled down the windows, starting up.

She pulled silently into the road and accelerated after Brandon’s pick up. The town had one set of traffic lights and she watched his truck hurry through yellow. She drifted to a stop and watched as a motorcycle crossed in front of her. Frowning she pulled out her netpad and typed in the license number. It popped up as belonging to Cami Dahlstrom, the query path director. She glanced left as the cycle sped across town. Ahead of her, Brandon was moving farther out of town.

She took a breath and accelerated forward. She had ideas that involved Brandon. She’d come back to Dahlstrom later. She also had a few questions for Seinfeld. She was well out of town, scanning for the dark green pickup truck – her GPS said it was about two klicks ahead of her – when a motorcycle roared past her then cut back in front of her. It slowed, forcing her car to slow as well. She could go around or use one of the extra features her police issue car had neatly tucked away in various nooks and crannies, but decided to forgo giving up her elements of surprise and come to a stop as Ms. Dahlstrom did. Be Nho briefly debated waiting or getting out, thought about the query path director’s martial arts skills and stayed in the car.

A moment later, she got off her cycle and came back to Be Nho. She stepped back until she could see in the window and crossed her arms over her chest. Be Nho rolled down the window and said, “You’ve got a reason for cutting me off, Query Path Director?”

Something flitted over Dahlstrom’s face then she said, “He was a douche bag.”

“Who?” Be Nho feigned interest.

“Nicholas Maynard.”

“He’s a murder victim. It’s irrelevant to me what he did when he was alive. I want to know how he died and who helped him.” She paused, looked Dahlstrom up and down, squinting. She didn’t add anything.

Dahlstrom held up under the gaze for a couple minutes then started to fidget, first a finger, then her foot. Finally, the arms loosened a bit and she said, “I’m a suspect?”

“What would compel you to think that you weren’t?”

“I didn’t do it.” Be Nho lifted her chin but didn’t comment. Dahlstrom looked away. Without looking at the investigator, she continued, “Not that he didn’t deserve it. Probably deserved a little torture, too.” She shot a look at Be Nho, “I may have loathed the man, but I didn’t kill him.”

Be Nho acknowledged that with a nod and said, “Then who did?”

“That’s what you’re here to find out, isn’t it?”

She nodded. “I’d appreciate any help you could give me.”

They locked gazes for a moment then Dahlstrom said, “Your friend wants me to be a cop.”

“She appreciates strong spirited women.”

Dahlstrom made a face, corners of the mouth turned down, eyebrows up. “Really?”

“Yes,” she replied then paused. “Do have any other information about Seinfeld, Brandon Maynard or Nicholas?”

Dahlstrom took a deep breath then slowly released it. “Maybe.” She snapped her head sideways. “Follow me. We’ll go out to my place and talk.”

For an instant, Be Nho felt like she’d started falling. It wasn’t exactly the best situation to get into, but she could take of herself. She had in the past. She said, “Lead on, then. I’ll follow.”

Dahlstrom held her gaze then turned back to her cycle and mounted, revving it then taking off down the road, still heading out of town. Be Nho followed, slipping her netpad out of her purse to the passenger’s seat and sending Tykaetrice a quick message. As Dahlstrom turned down a gravel road, the sheriff messaged back, but Be Nho had to concentrate on driving as the maglev effect stopped, the wheels dropped to the ground and the electric motor kicked in. She had to concentrate on following the windy road as it snaked through copses of poplar and sumac then dove into a wood of ancient, towering oak.

By the time they reached a run-down, stucco and red-tiled roof, 20th Century California mission three-story, she was ready to stop. Dahlstrom was off her cycle and walking toward Be Nho when the ground erupted in front of her and the blast of a shotgun echoed off the hard oak trunks.

Dahlstrom spun to run back to the house, but just as she reached the garage, a second shot thundered and she went down. Be Nho, after she’d sprinted for the cover of the nearby woods, ran crouching along the edge, her neurodischarge gun – people jokingly called it her ‘neuralizer’ – linked now to her bioconversion hand. She waited for another shot, then ran for Dahlstrom, knelt beside her and felt for a pulse. It was strong and she was only bleeding from small lacerations, probably concrete splinters from the wall. There was a cracked star pattern across the wall above head level.

Leaving the query path director – the teacher – on the ground, Be Nho ran for the car. The ground behind her jumped as she dove and rolled behind the tires. She opened the driver’s side door and reached in for the netpad. The car windows shattered and she jerked back, smashing the ‘pad against the steering wheel, cracking the screen. A second shotgun blast peppered the car as she sat on her heels behind the tire and sent a call to Tykaetrice. The screen flickered fitfully and when the “connected” screen came up for an instant, Be Nho gave her last known coordinates, reported Dahlstrom’s injuries and condition and told Tykaetrice to hurry. There was a heavy silence in the wood. She prairie dogged, scanning for the shooter but saw nothing.

There was a good chance he or she was approaching. Rather than wait, she slid the netpad under the car and crouching again, dashed for the wood, slipping behind a tree. With the neuralizer aimed this time, she feinted right then jumped to the left out from behind the tree.

No one.

She sprayed the area with a nerve disruption field. Four birds, an owl and seven squirrels dropped from the trees. There was a scream from beyond the drive and a huge raccoon staggered out from the underbrush and collapsed on the gravel. “Crap,” Be Nho muttered. She ran to the car, jumped in, started it and floored the accelerator, slewing around, spraying gravel, avoiding Dahlstrom and charging for the main road. It wasn’t until she’d nearly reached it that another pair of shotgun blasts hit the car on the passenger side. “Trying to go around and come at me from behind…” she said. She spared a skyward glance but didn’t see the Sheriff’s SWAT flyer cavalry.

She raced onto the main road, slamming on the brakes as a dark green pickup heading out of town swerved wildly to avoid her then gunned its engine and raced on. She knew that truck! She hit the accelerator, following Brandon Maynard as he roared out of town. Her main suspect was trying to escape.

Her foot dropped from the accelerator and she coasted to a stop as she said, “If that’s Brandon, then who just tried to kill me?” Whoever they were, they were still back at Dahlstrom’s house.

There was no way to call Tykaetrice.

If the shooter had been intent on killing the teacher, their aim would have been better. In fact, the shooting had been remarkably inexperienced. Be Nho floored her accelerator again and held it to the floor. A special unit activated and boosted her speed past one hundred ten kph. Her hands merged with the steering wheel and taking control of whatever was left of the car computer, kept her on the road as she caught up with Brandon’s truck, passed it then slowly edged it off the road. The driver instinctively let off the gas as the truck edged toward the ditch until they were both stopped.

Be Nho glanced over and saw nothing though the doors were both closed. At that moment, the sheriff’s chopper roared up from a dip in the road before them and another roared up behind them. They wheeled to hover and a voice boomed from external speakers demanding that the driver not move or he’d be shot.

Be Nho stood, feet apart, her neuralizer aimed at the pickup as she shouted, “Come out with your hands on top of your head!”

The gray head of an old man lifted up, hands on top of his head. Be Nho motioned for him to get out and he did. A moment later, deputies – including “Corporal Stager, Ma’am” – swarmed in to Miranda Rights, cuff and cart away Brandon Maynard.

Shortly, Tykaetrice’s squad hovered to the scene. In the back seat, his head forward, the crown resting on the seat, was Seinfeld. As she got out, she said, “Brandon put him up to it. Said to scare you all away by acting like he was trying to kill you.”

Be Nho replied, “Seinfeld probably told you that Brandon said he’d tell the police that the boy killed Nicholas.”

Tykaetrice nodded, “Brandon told him that everyone would believe his tale because Seinfeld was just a kid and the last one to have contact with Nicholas.”

“Kid was probably scared to death; willing to do anything.” Tykaetrice nodded. Be Nho added, “How’s Dahlstrom?”

“Fine. Paramedics treated the lacerations and sent her into the house with a sedative and orders to sleep. Ashley just shrugged and went back into the house when we told her. Nina’s weeping and thinking that Seinfeld’s on a hot track to readjustment – she’s more in lust with him than ever.” Be Nho shot her a look and they both laughed. “Sorry you missed your grandson’s bar mitzvah or whatever it was.”

“Birthday. Sorry you had to waste two vacation days for this.”

Tykaetrice shrugged and said, “I’ll just take two more. No problem. I was just at the lake.”

Be Nho pulled her gloves on, looked at her beat up car and lifted a chin toward the helicopters. “Think I can bum a ride from one of the pilots?”

“You don’t even have to bum a ride. You can go as my guest.” Be Nho nodded and headed for the nearest chopper. Tykaetrice called out, “Good to see you again, but I hope I don’t see you for a long, long time. Preferably after I retire.”

Be Nho waved and called back as the chopper revved up, “Same here! Whoever retires first buy the other one a bottle of

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